“We struggle with that a lot. How do we articulate that this really is urgent in that kind of ’news’ sense of the word?”

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Episode notes

Dao X. Tran is Managing Editor of Voice of Witness, which develops oral histories and education programs to amplify the voices of people impacted by injustice.

Recent projects have included the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, indigenous Americans, and settlement of refugees in Appalachia. (You can find all their projects here.)

We start with her early years in Philadelphia, as a child refugee in a working class neighbourhood split by serious divides, and a path into social justice activism.

We then get into the ethics and practice of oral history with marginalised communities. How to select stories that matter; how to centre narrators themselves rather than one’s own agenda; and how to bring this to a wider audience.

Topics discussed:

[05:45] Growing up in a refugee and working class neighbourhood in Philadelphia. Not seeing those kinds of narratives reflected in education and popular culture.

[11:00] Identifying areas where oral history projects can add value. Taking strategic decisions about what a US-based organisation can best contribute.

[19:15] The process of doing oral history. Finding interlocutors, building their narratives, keeping yourself out of the way.

[26:40] Avoiding an overall “story”, and a sense of closure that wouldn’t be true to reality.

[30:10] Where oral history fits into formal education. Building spaces for new points of view.

[34:00] Links between oral history of marginalised groups, and social justice activism. What changes because of all this. Doing all this during the covid-19 pandemic, and at the peak of the #blacklivesmatter movement.

[45:35] Finding “urgent” stories and not trying to do everything. Work with Native American communities.

[52:10] Critical tasks. Respecting and supporting narrators rather than introducing one’s own ideas. Respecting their particular voice. A few key influences in this regard.